We try not to wade into the political fray too much at No Baloney and keep it to the facts, but with the passing of the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” now seems as good a time as any to take a closer look at genetically modified organisms (GMOs), their impact on our food system and our health.
Signed into US law last week, the Farmer Assurance Provision gives GMO producers an unfettered ability to sell, plant and harvest GMO crops in the US without fear of legal ramifications should these products end up being bad for you. Sounds a bit suspect to us – if you are selling the public a product we’ve been assured is safe time and again, what’s the need for amnesty from prosecution? Could have something to do with the fact that Monsanto owns 86% of all GMO seeds cultivated worldwide and the debate over their safety continues to rage!
There have been arguments going for decades regarding the safety of GMOs and the evidence is still suspiciously absent. With so many opinions, it’s hard to sift through rhetoric (on both sides of the argument!) and get to the actual evidence, but we’ll try!
What exactly are GMOs? Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also called genetically engineered (GE) foods, have had their genes altered in a way that would not occur in nature OR they contain genes inserted from another organism. Those with genes from other organisms are called “transgenic” and represent a large number of GMOs on the market today, such as Bt corn, so-named because it contains a gene from a bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) that confers resistance to the herbicide Roundup.
May sound like a bad sci-fi movie, but GMOs have been around since 1994, when the Flavr Savr tomato first came to market after FDA approval. Now, GMOs are everywhere and Canada is the third largest producer of GMOs in the world.
Where do you find GMOs? Everywhere! The most common GMOs crops that make their way into our food are corn, vegetable oils (like canola), and soybeans, where 85% of soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified. Squash and papaya are also approved GMO crops, with many more grains, veggies and fruits on the way to being approved. Click here for a round-up (pun intended!) of other GMO crops from Discovery (we’re a fan of this quiz too).
We love the face-off published recently in Genes & Nutrition (1), pitting two researchers – one pro-GMO, one anti-GMO – against each other. Here’s a quick summary of the pro and con arguments:
Pro: the chief argument proponents of GMOs make is that they will help with global food production and security.
- Reduced environmental impact: reduced pesticide and herbicide use on GM-resistant plants
- Improved nutrition: foods “biofortified” with vitamins/mineral like Golden Rice
could help solve nutrient deficiencies
- Less food waste: food modified for better transportability, less bruising, etc.
Con: advocates are concerned that there are too many unknowns surrounding GMOs, and that approvals have been premature and ahead of solid safety evidence.
- Gene flow: the possibility of GMOs passing on genes to wild species and interrupting natural processes
- Pest resistance: use of GMOs leading to natural selection for pesticide- and herbicide-resistant insects and weeds
- Health: limited evidence to support long-term safety of eating GMOs
- Ownership over life: in essence, corporations like Monsanto own these specific life forms and have pursued litigation to protect their property
What does the research say?
There is suspiciously little evidence of long-term GMO safety and much of the research available is from one group in France (2-5)… and it is not pro-GMO. The safety of NK603, a Roundup-resistant corn, was called into question after Séralini et al. (5) documented significant liver, kidney and hormone disruption in rats fed GMO corn. However, Health Canada and several other international organizations disputed the study results because of “methodological issues”, concluding that a re-opening the issue of GMO safety was not warranted.
Regardless of methodological issues, the fact remains that there are NO long-term studies looking at the effects of GMO consumption on human health. Despite the questions surrounding GMO safety, the issue is not on everyone’s radar and public awareness and opinion vary considerably worldwide. Those living in Europe and Asia seem to question GMOs more rigorously than North Americans (6) and those who are older, female and more educated also seem to be more cautious (7).
The arguments related to environmental implications of GMOs seem to have the most traction, as gene flow to wild species and an increase in resistant pests have already been demonstrated (1). If you want more information on GMO regulation and evidence, this FAQ from the World Health Organization is a good place to start.
No Baloney’s advice? In all likelihood, you have been chowing down on GMOs since the ‘90s when they were first introduced. The biggest concern we have regarding GMOs and health is that the science is still relatively new and there is little health-related research, yet GMOs have been fully embraced by many governments with little attention to consumer concern. Look how long it took us to realize trans fats were a bad idea!
We agree with Marion Nestle that “consumers have the right to choose” and appropriate labeling should be required. While MANY other countries have mandatory GMO labeling rules in place (such as Europe and Japan), Canada and the US do not. There is a voluntary labeling program in Canada BUT you would be hard pressed to find a manufacturer advertising that their product is full of GMOs!
In North America, about 60 – 70% of food sold in stores includes genetically modified ingredients. Why is this number so high? Because corn, soybeans and canola are so pervasive in our food supply – as processed food ingredients and components of animal feed – and they happen to be the top genetically modified crops. Look no further than any food with corn in it’s history – from corn-fed ground beef to soda pop containing high-fructose corn syrup – GMOs are stocking the shelves.
If you feel uncomfortable with this figure, the only way to really avoid eating GMOs is to choose exclusively organic foods, which are free from GMOs. The best you can do at this point is vote with your dollar.
- Buiatti M, et al. The application of GMOs in agriculture and in food production for a better nutrition: two different scientific points of view. Genes Nutr 2012; [epub ahead of print].
- de Vendômois JS, et al. A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5:706-26.
- Séralini GE, et al. How subchronic and chronic health effects can be neglected for GMOs, pesticides or chemicals. Int J Biol Sci 2009 Jun 17;5(5):438-43.
- de Vendômois JS, et al. Debate on GMOs health risks after statistical findings in regulatory tests. Int J Biol Sci 2010; 6:590-8.
- Séralini GE, et al. Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food Chem Toxicol 2012; 50:4221-31.
- Goyal P, Gurtoo S. Factors influencing public perception: genetically modified organisms. GMO Biosafety Research 2011; 2: 1-11.
- Legge JS, Durant RF. Public opinion, risk assessment, and biotechnology: lessons from attitudes toward genetically modified foods in the European Union. Review of Policy Research 2010; 27:59 – 76.